Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

An Inquest into the Subprime Crisis

, image by Paul Townsend

Coroners Inquests in Gloucestershire from The Gloucester Journal 1814

Juan Ospina and Harald Uhlig have posted Mortgage-Backed Securities and the Financial Crisis of 2008: A Post-Mortem to SSRN. Given that the market for private-label MBS pretty much died by 2008, the title is apt. The paper presents a challenge to many of the standard narratives that have developed to explain the causes of the subprime crisis and the broader financial crisis that followed. Other researchers in this area will surely take up the gauntlet thrown down by this paper. Hopefully, we will collectively come up with the right narrative to explain the whole mess. The paper opens,

Gradually, the deep financial crisis of 2008 is in the rearview mirror. With that, standard narratives have emerged, which will inform and influence policy choices and public perception in the future for a long time to come. For that reason, it is all the more important to examine these narratives with the distance of time and available data, as many of these narratives were created in the heat of the moment.

One such standard narrative has it that the financial meltdown of 2008 was caused by an overextension of mortgages to weak borrowers, repackaged and then sold to willing lenders drawn in by faulty risk ratings for these mortgage back securities. To many, mortgage backed securities and rating agencies became the key villains of that financial crisis. In particular, rating agencies were blamed for assigning the coveted AAA rating to many securities, which did not deserve it, particularly in the subprime segment of the market, and that these ratings then lead to substantial losses for institutional investors, who needed to invest in safe assets and who mistakenly put their trust in these misguided ratings.

In this paper, we re-examine this narrative. We seek to address two questions in particular. First, were these mortgage backed securities bad investments? Second, were the ratings wrong? We answer these questions, using a new and detailed data set on the universe of non-agency residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS), obtained by devoting considerable work to carefully assembling data from Bloomberg and other sources. This data set allows us to examine the actual repayment stream and losses on principal on these securities up to 2014, and thus with a considerable distance since the crisis events. In essence, we provide a post-mortem on a market that many believe to have died in 2008. We find that the conventional narrative needs substantial rewriting: the ratings and the losses were not nearly as bad as this narrative would lead one to believe.

Specifically, we calculate the ex-post realized losses as well as ex-post realized return on investing on par in these mortgage backed securities, under various assumptions of the losses for the remaining life time of the securities. We compare these realized returns to their ratings in 2008 and their promised loss distributions, according to tables available from the rating agencies. We shall investigate, whether ratings were a sufficient statistic (to the degree that a discretized rating can be) or whether they were, essentially, just “noise”, given information already available to market participants at the time of investing such as ratings of borrowers.

We establish seven facts. First, the bulk of these securities was rated AAA. Second, AAA securities did ok: on average, their total cumulated losses up to 2013 are 2.3 percent. Third, the subprime AAA-rated segment did particularly well. Fourth, later vintages did worse than earlier vintages, except for subprime AAA securities. Fifth, the bulk of the losses were concentrated on a small share of all securities. Sixth, the misrating for AAA securities was modest. Seventh, controlling for a home price bust, a home price boom was good for the repayment on these securities. (1-2)

The Costs and Benefits of A Dodd-Frank Mortgage Provision

Craig Furfine has posted The Impact of Risk Retention Regulation on the Underwriting of Securitized Mortgages to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 imposed requirements on securitization sponsors to retain not less than a 5% share of the aggregate credit risk of the assets they securitize. This paper examines whether loans securitized in deals sold after the implementation of risk-retention requirements look different from those sold before. Using a difference-in-difference empirical framework, I find that risk retention implementation is associated with mortgages being issued with markedly higher interest rates, yet notably lower loan-to-value ratios and higher income to debt-service ratios. Combined, these findings suggest that the implementation of risk retention rules has achieved a policy goal of making securitized loans safer, yet at a significant cost to borrowers.

While the paper primarily addressed the securitization of commercial mortgages, I was particularly interested in the paper’s conclusion that

the results suggest that risk retention rules will become an increasingly important factor for the underwriting of residential mortgages, too. Non-prime residential lending has continued to rapidly increase and if exemptions given to the GSEs expire in 2021 as currently scheduled, then a much greater fraction of residential lending will also be subject to these same rules. (not paginated)

As always, policymakers will need to evaluate whether we have the right balance between conservative underwriting and affordable credit. Let’s hope that they can address this issue with some objectivity given today’s polarized political climate.

Rising Mortgage Borrowing for Seniors

graphic by www.aag.com/retirement-reverse-mortgage-pictures

J. Michael Collins et al. have posted Exploring the Rise of Mortgage Borrowing Among Older Americans to SSRN. The abstract reads,

3.6 million more older American households have a mortgage than 2000, contributing to an increase in mortgage usage among the elderly of thirty-nine percent. Rather than collecting imputed rent, older households are borrowing against home equity, potentially with loan terms that exceed their expected life spans. This paper explores several possible explanations for the rise in mortgage borrowing among the elderly over the past 35 years and its consequences. A primary factor is an increase in homeownership rates, but tax policy, rent-to-price ratios, and increased housing consumption are also factors. We find little evidence that changes to household characteristics such as income, education, or bequest motives are driving increased mortgage borrowing trends. Rising mortgage borrowing provides older households with increased liquid saving, but it does not appear to be associated with decreases in non-housing consumption or increases in loan defaults.

The discussion in the paper raises a lot of issues that may be of interest to other researchers:

Changes to local housing markets tax laws, and housing consumption preferences also appear to contribute to differential changes in mortgage usage by age.

Examining sub-groups of households helps illuminate these patterns. Households with below-median assets and those without pensions account for most of the increase in borrowing. Yet there are no signs of rising defaults or financial hardship for these older households with mortgage debt.

Relatively older homeowners without other assets, especially non-retirement assets, may simply be borrowing to fund consumption in the present—there are some patterns of borrowing in response to local unemployment rates that are consistent with this concept. This could be direct consumption or to help family members.

Older homeowners are holding on to their homes, and their mortgages, longer and potentially smoothing consumption or preserving liquid savings. Low interest rates may have enticed many homeowners in their 50s and 60s into refinancing in the 2000s. Those loans had low rates, and given the decline in home equity and also other asset values in the recession, paying off these loans was less feasible. There is also some evidence that borrowing tends to be more common in areas where the relative costs of renting are higher–limiting other options. Whether these patterns are sustained as more current aging cohorts retire from work, housing prices appreciate, and interest rates increase remains ambiguous.

The increase in the use of mortgages by older households is a trend worthy of more study. This is also an important issue for financial planners, and policy makers, to monitor over the next few years as more cohorts of older households retire, and existing retirees either take on more debt or pay off their loans. Likewise, estate sales of property and probate courts may find more homes encumbered with a mortgage. Surviving widows and widowers may struggle to pay mortgage payments after the death of a spouse and face a reduction of pension or Social Security payments. This may be a form of default risk not currently priced into mortgage underwriting for older loan applicants. If more mortgage borrowing among the elderly results in more foreclosures, smaller inheritances, or even estates with negative values, this could have negative effects on extended families and communities.

Interest-Only During Recessions

John Campbell et al. have posted Structuring Mortgages for Macroeconomic Stability to SSRN. They are not the first to propose a mortgage product that is designed to lessen its burden when times are hard, but that does not make their proposal any the less intriguing. The authors write,

Events in the last decade have shown that adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) have advantages over fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) in stabilizing the economy, at least when the central bank has monetary independence and can lower the short-term interest rate in a recession. A lower short rate provides automatic budget relief for ARM borrowers and helps to support their spending. It can also provide some relief to FRM borrowers, but this requires both a decline in the long-term mortgage rate and refinancing, which may be constrained by declining house prices and tightening credit standards. Barriers to FRM refinancing in the aftermath of the Great Recession were an important concern of US policymakers and motivated the introduction of the Home Affordable Refinance Program. (1, citations omitted)

The authors are certainly right that mortgages were a big drag on households during the Great Recession and many of them (but not all) would have benefited from lower monthly payments. To address this, the authors

study mortgage design features aimed at stabilizing the macroeconomy. Using a calibrated life-cycle model with competitive risk-averse lenders, we consider an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) with an option that during recessions allows borrowers to pay only interest on their loan and extend its maturity. We find that this option has several advantages: it stabilizes consumption growth over the business cycle, shifts defaults to expansions, and lowers the equilibrium mortgage rate by stabilizing cash flows to lenders. These advantages are magnified in a low and stable real interest rate environment where the standard ARM delivers less budget relief in a recession.

While there have been some pilot programs that introduce countercyclical mortgage products, nothing has really taken off so far. Hopefully, papers like this will push lenders and regulators to keep looking for solutions to our next housing crisis, before it actually hits.

Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis

photo by Jeff Turner

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released a white paper on Enterprise Counterparties: Mortgage Insurers. The Executive Summary reads,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) operate under congressional charters to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market. Those charters, which have been amended from time to time, authorize the Enterprises to purchase residential mortgages and codify an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. Pursuant to their charters, the Enterprises may purchase single-family residential mortgages with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios above 80%, provided that these mortgages are supported by one of several credit enhancements identified in their charters. A credit enhancement is a method or tool to reduce the risk of extending credit to a borrower; mortgage insurance is one such method. Since 1957, private mortgage insurers have assumed an ever-increasing role in providing credit enhancements and they now insure “the vast majority of loans over 80% LTV purchased by the” Enterprises. In congressional testimony in 2015, Director Watt emphasized that mortgage insurance is critical to the Enterprises’ efforts to provide increased housing access for lower-wealth borrowers through 97% LTV loans.

During the financial crisis, some mortgage insurers faced severe financial difficulties due to the precipitous drop in housing prices and increased defaults that required the insurers to pay more claims. State regulators placed three mortgage insurers into “run-off,” prohibiting them from writing new insurance, but allowing them to continue collecting renewal premiums and processing claims on existing business. Some mortgage insurers rescinded coverage on more loans, canceling the policies and returning the premiums.  Currently, the mortgage insurance industry consists of six private mortgage insurers.

In our 2017 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we identified the four areas that we believe pose the most significant risks to FHFA and the entities it supervises. One of those four areas is counterparty risk – the risk created by persons or entities that provide services to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. According to FHFA, mortgage insurers represent the largest counterparty exposure for the Enterprises. The Enterprises acknowledge that, although the financial condition of their mortgage insurer counterparties approved to write new business has improved in recent years, the risk remains that some of them may fail to fully meet their obligations. While recent financial and operational requirements may enhance the resiliency of mortgage insurers, other industry features and emerging trends point to continuing risk.

We undertook this white paper to understand and explain the current and emerging risks associated with private mortgage insurers that insure loan payments on single-family mortgages with LTVs greater than 80% purchased by the Enterprises. (2)

It is a truism that the next crisis won’t look like the last one. It is worth heeding the Inspector General’s warning about the

risks from private mortgage insurance as a credit enhancement, including increasing volume, high concentrations, an inability by the Enterprises to manage concentration risk, mortgage insurers with credit ratings below the Enterprises’ historic requirements and investment grade, the challenges inherent in a monoline business and the cyclic housing market, and remaining unpaid mortgage insurer deferred obligations. (13)

One could easily imagine a taxpayer bailout of Fannie and Freddie driven by the insolvency of the some or all of the six private mortgage insurers that do business with them. Let’s hope that the FHFA addresses that risk now, while the mortgage market is still healthy.

Evidence and Innovation in Housing

Lee Anne Fennell and Benjamin Keys have posted the Introduction to their new book, Evidence and Innovation in Housing Law and Policy, to SSRN. It opens,

No area of law and policy presents more important and pressing questions, or ones more central to human well-being, than that of housing. Yet academic discourse around housing is too often siloed into separate topical areas and disciplinary approaches, while remaining distanced from the contentious housing policy debates unfolding in communities across the nation. In June 2016, the Kreisman Initiative on Housing Law and Policy at the University of Chicago Law School convened a conference in downtown Chicago with the goal of breaking down these barriers and forging new connections – between different facets of housing law and policy, between different disciplinary approaches to housing issues, between academic inquiry and applied policy, and between the lessons of the past and adaptations for the future.

This volume is the product of that conference and the dialogue it provoked among academics, practitioners, and policy makers. Its baker’s dozen of contributions comprises cutting-edge interdisciplinary work on housing and housing finance from leading scholars in law, economics, and policy. The pieces individually and collectively showcase how research and policy can come together in the housing arena. We hope the end result will have lasting relevance in setting the course – and identifying the obstacles – for housing law and policy going forward.

This book is organized around two interlocking roles that housing serves: as a vehicle for building community, and as a vehicle for building wealth. These facets of housing carry implications both for the households who consume residential services and for the larger economic, political, and spatial domains in which housing plays such a primary and contentious role. Cumulatively, the pieces here confront, and respond innovatively to, the dilemmas that these two facets of housing create for law and policy at different scales of analysis. (1)

This collection of papers brings together an all-star cast of housing nerds. While the papers are an eclectic mix, they are pretty consistent in that they ask important questions about housing policy. Even better, the Introduction contains links to open access versions of each paper. They are listed below:

Part I – Housing and the Metropolis: Law and Policy Perspectives

1 – The Rise of the Homevoters: How the Growth Machine Was Subverted by OPEC and Earth Day By William A. Fischel

2 – How Land Use Law Impedes Transportation Innovation By David Schleicher

3 – The Unassailable Case against Affordable Housing Mandates By Richard A. Epstein

Part II – Housing as Community: Stability, Change, and Perceptions

4 – Balancing the Costs and Benefits of Historic Preservation By Ingrid Gould Ellen & Brian J. McCabe

5 – Historic Preservation and Its Even Less Authentic Alternative By Lior Jacob Strahilevitz

6 – Losing My Religion: Church Condo Conversions and Neighborhood Change By Georgette Chapman Phillips

7 – How Housing Dynamics Shape Neighborhood Perceptions By Matthew Desmond

Part III – Housing as Wealth Building: Consumers and Housing Finance

8 – Behavioral Leasing: Renter Equity as an Intermediate Housing Form By Stephanie M. Stern

9 – Housing, Mortgages, and Retirement By Christopher J. Mayer

10 – The Rise and (Potential) Fall of Disparate Impact Lending Litigation By Ian Ayres, Gary Klein, & Jeffrey West

Part IV – Housing and the Financial System: Risks and Returns

11 – Household Debt and Defaults from 2000 to 2010: The Credit Supply View By Atif Mian & Amir Sufi

12 – Representations and Warranties: Why They Did Not Stop the Crisis By Patricia A. McCoy & Susan Wachter

13 – When the Invisible Hand Isn’t a Firm Hand: Disciplining Markets That Won’t Discipline Themselves By Raphael W. Bostic & Anthony W. Orlando